July 3, 2000.
Although I was only 12 years old, I can recall this day with more detail than most from my childhood.
And not because I knew it was important at the time, but rather it signified the beginning of a big part of my life that not many people know about, save for one or two of my oldest friends.
Like most of my summer mornings at that age, I was left to my own devices to play in the backyard, ride my bike, read, watch Sportscenter on repeat, or play video games. This particular morning I remember being engrossed in one of the latter, specifically one set in the Mario universe.
After what was probably a multi-hour session of Mario Partying with myself (actually not a euphemism), I ventured upstairs for my ritualistic afternoon session on AOL, exploring whatever it was that had a grip on my pre-pubescent mind at the time (not porn just yet). This day, I can remember wanting to know more about the universe I was just exploring: that of Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom.
And probably after delving into the Yahoo! Directory (how I miss thee), I ended up on a message board called Nintendoland, part of a larger gaming message board site simply called the Video Game Forums (VGF).
And I basically didn’t leave for the rest of the decade.
Prior to this, my only “social” experience online was AOL’s chat rooms, which mostly consisted of me talking out of my ass about sports or people asking me “ASL”, to which “12/M/OH” never seemed to generate any follow up responses for some reason.
So when I encountered Nintendoland’s culture (really, typical of any message board of the time), I was hooked. Inside jokes and jargon, respected “veterans” and “noobs” of the community, total post counts that earned you different color stars and “ranks” under your username, registration day “birthdays” (which is why I remember 7/3/00)…it was gamification and social networking combined before either of those were household words.
I donned the username ShyGuy727, ironically not because of the social disposition I now hope to make a living writing about, but after one of my favorite Mario characters:
That day I made my first few posts, lord knows about what (VGF only lets me look back as far as 2008). While seeing fireworks with my parents the following night, I was already distracted by thinking back to my new online community, wondering what insightful thing or witty remark users like Tub-O-Troopa, KirbyKing, or VGF’s godfather, Shane, had to say.
Later that month we went on vacation, and I can vividly remember bragging to my cousin about my green stars (“given” only to those members that had made 100 or more posts) and trying to get him to join. Soon, the autumn arrived and so did school, and hopping on VGF from 3-4, Hot Pocket in hand, became part of my daily routine.
But the boards quickly became a place to talk about more than just the politics of the Mushroom Kingdom or a place to participate in “make a Kirby-related story, three words at a time” threads. A large number of non-video game-related forums served as both outlets and support systems for our adolescent strife.
Often, these issues were, yes, teenage in nature (“how do I ask a girl to prom?”). Other times they were the first exposure I had to real tragedy in my privileged yet sheltered suburban life:
Pre-any sort of site where I could read reaction at a 13-year old level, VGF was where I was able to make some sense of the weight of 9/11. A post that same afternoon from a forum member (that I interacted with daily) explaining he just found out his father was in the South Tower when it collapsed gave me much more perspective about the tragedies than any explanation from my parents or teachers ever could.
Another longtime member that I engaged with frequently passed away at 16 due to a chronic bone marrow disorder. Almost 10 years later, “Knux” is still memorialized on the site in his own dedicated forum, favorite memory threads as well as his obituary archived forever in a kind of digital monument.
We all learn that the world can be a cruel and nonsensical place at different times and in different ways, and for me it came through the stories of my digital friends.
These incidents only strengthened my bond with the board, and over the next 7-8 years I accrued over 10,000 posts on VGF, good enough (then) to put me top 30 all-time. Even though my actual video game playing waned heavily toward the end of this period, I became one of the forum’s most loyal and recognizable members.
I read about and commented on current events, helped other message board nerds sort through their pubescent drama, and sharpened my fantasy/role-playing writing skills in the “Battlefield”. I learned how to write with humor, express empathy through language, and even some basic HTML. In a place where soft opinions went to die, my writing voice also solidified and strengthened. I also had my first exposure to internet shock sites and was once so disturbed/nauseated I had to skip a family dinner.
In high school, my VGF visitation tapered off and my attention shifted to the slightly more mature (read: high schoolers and college students instead of middle schoolers and high schoolers) GameFAQs message boards, particularly the Sports and Racing forums. Funny enough, one of my fellow interns in New York was actually a member of these same forums, and upon moving there we quickly formed a friendship over our mutual nerddom.
But eventually real life started to out-fulfill my online one, and unceremoniously I said goodbye to ShyGuy727 and message boards* altogether.
Despite the enjoyment I derived from these online communities (and I suppose some of the trouble they kept me out of), for several years I looked back on this period of my life with utter contempt. Somehow I was convinced that if I hadn’t spent that time crafting my online persona, my offline one would have developed faster.
And maybe it would have. But chances are I also would have just found another “mindless” pursuit to fulfill my time, one that didn’t involve any kind of interaction with others, digital or otherwise.
But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I view all that time “wasted” on message boards as one the best things to ever happen to me.
Before I knew that I wanted to devote my life to writing (2012 or so), the story I would tell myself was something along the lines of “writing and creating always came naturally to me”. While it’s true I was always creating, scribbling, and sketching in notebooks on car trips, I never realized that these things didn’t come naturally—in reality I was honing them daily for about a decade. On video game message boards.
Those 10,000+ posts? In a way, I had been practicing for what I wanted to do with the rest of my life without even knowing it. Before having any idea what 10,000 hours was significant of, I was accumulating mine.
The ‘find your passion’ crowd often cries something along the lines of “look back to what infatuated you as a child”, and in the extremely limited scope of my own life, I can’t disagree with this. I was allowed to run rampant online (within reason) and as an inadvertent result I developed perhaps my greatest professional asset. Moreover, the forums helped me figure out more than just that I liked to write. You don’t spend all that time sharing your teenage tribulations with strangers and without learning a thing or two about what makes you tick and who you are as a person. Despite how trivial my “problems” were then, the daily introspection in that afternoon window developed a habit that continues on today in the form of journaling and meditation.
Of course, absolutely none of this was apparent at the time, which further exemplifies the importance of letting oneself pursue that which is on their mind during all hours of the day, without pragmatic purpose. Like Christine Hassler says in The 20 Something Manifesto:
Following your passion is a journey, not a magic wand; success is not immediate, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come.
So while I may never be a video game reviewer, game script writer, online counselor, or the mayor of Toad Town, for my writing’s sake, I am extremely grateful my parents never told me to ‘just go play outside’.
*before their resurgence in mainstream popularity as “social news” sites, ala reddit.